Thursday, November 09, 2006

STRANGE FIRE

Recently, Dr. Vincent Synan, Dean of the Divinity School and Regent University and long time historian of the Pentecostal and Charismatics movements, commented on the explosive growth of the Pentecostal movement across the increasingly Christian Southern Hemisphere by saying that those who want to deal with Christians will not be able to ignore the Pentecostals since they are on track to become the predominant expression of the Christian faith in this growing part of the world.

Just a few days ago the New York Times published a story concerning a recent scientific study on the brain activity of someone while they spoke in tongues. As an aside, one wonders why the Times cannot hire an editor who knows enough about the religious world to know that Pentecostal is not spelled "Pentacostal!"

As a former Pentecostal pastor, I was once asked if I still speak in tongues now that I have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. Having been raised in this sub-culture of the Christian faith, I was blessed to be pastored by a Pentecostal pastor who was also open to the wider Evangelical movement. He taught us to value education (not a widely held opinion in the older versions of Pentecostalism) and he taught us to learn from the wider Christian world. While he regrets my conversion to Orthodoxy, he has never treated me with anything less than love and respect.

Oh, and as for the question mentioned above, the answer is "no" I no longer speak in tongues, unless you consider liturgical Greek a gift of the Spirit.

I contend that the growth of Pentecostalism and the less strident Charismatic movement is a result of a theological poverty in Western Christianity that can be seen as early as the "filioque" controversy and the unintended theological consequences that followed. The emphasis of the West on rationalism and the weak and sometimes bizarre forms of mysticism that developed in the West gave rise to both the over reaction and sad necessity of the Reformation which gave rise to the even more rationalistic movements of Calvinism and legalistic, sterile, piety of the 1st and 2nd so-called "Great Awakenings. All of this led to the subsequent Holiness movements of the 19th century along with the multiplying of Christian "denominations" on the American continent, and eventually led to the outbreak of the Pentecostal movement at the turn of the 20th century.

The human longing that gave birth to the Pentecostal movement is not bad in itself. The fundamental and basic hunger that is addressed by Pentecostalism is a desire for intimacy with the Uncreated God. This is good and God-given. We were meant for intimacy with the Divine.

But the theological poverty that was the atmosphere of the birth of Pentecostalism guaranteed that the very good desire would be quickly corrupted by weak theological support. And the movement bears this out. All one has to do is turn on religious TV to discover both old and new heresies finding fertile ground in the hearts of ungrounded and disconnected Pentecostal believers.

One of the earliest heresies was the so-called "Oneness" heresy concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. Once again, the weak theological grounding of Western theologies concerning the Trinity produced the natural over reaction of some in the young Pentecostal movement to receive the "revelation" of the oneness of the Godhead. They began to teach a form of "modalism" and insist that God is not a trinity of Persons, but only One Person - Jesus. Beginning with the "new issue" of baptism only in the name of Jesus, these often sincere and fervent believers, cut off as they were from the wise theology of centuries of Christian theology, made it up as they went along.

One might have hoped that as the movement matured it would outgrow the excesses of its past, but the Oneness Pentecostals actually make up a third of all the Pentecostals in the world. The recent movie "Jesus Camp" is an example of both the biased view of the secular world toward people of faith and the easy target Pentecostals make of themselves by due to their being cut off from the wise and sobering theology of the Orthodox Christian faith.

But weak theology on the doctrine of the Trinity is not the only "strange fire" that burns in the fields of Pentecostalism. The so-called "Prosperity Gospel", the hyper-individualism that seems to reign within the movement and all its offshoots, the emotionalism that leads to nothing more than religious sentimentalism, and even the weakness of dependence on ecstatic experiences that even seem to feed a tendency toward sexual immorality, can all be found in abundance in Pentecostal movements.

Reading this you may wonder if I see any good in my former Pentecostal roots. You may be surprised to read that I consider Pentecostalism the greatest hope for Western Christianity to correct the theological mistakes of its past. I am convinced that Pentecostalism is God's gift to the West to draw Western Christianity back to a more ancient and healthier theological experience with God. Pentecostalism is the poor man's mysticism, and, as I said above, a clear cry for intimacy with God. I am indebted to my Pentecostal roots for fanning the flames of this desire for intimacy for God and for an experience in Christian community I cherish to this day. It eventually led me home to the Orthodox Church where, instead of burning my spiritual house down with "wild fire", I found a wise fireplace for the fire kindled in my heart by my Pentecostal upbringing. Thank you, Brother Holder and Open Bible Tabernacle. I shall be in your debt forever.

But the only remedy for the spiritual sicknesses that pervades Pentecostalism is a return to, or perhaps a discovery for the first time of, the wisdom of the Undivided Church. This must include rigorous theological work that take seriously the truth that we cannot truly understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to His Church today unless we understand what He has said to His Church in the past. The foolish behavior of making final choices about deep theological truths before we have gathered all the relevant theological evidence has produced too many spiritual casualties to be allowed to continue.

Pentecostalism is not going away. Christians from the more ancient traditions of the Church had better become well acquainted with this religious movement because societies are increasingly affected by this religious phenomenon. Pentecostals must abandon the prideful notion that their movement dropped out of heaven completely disconnected from the historical realities around them. The shallow "me and Jesus got our own thing going" mentality will never lead to anything more than a perpetual spiritual kindergarten. In the end, Pentecostalism may find itself increasingly dissimilar from Christianity.

Finally, as history shows, the Church eventually comes to grip with theological truths in the face of heretical threats. May the blessed and live-giving Holy Spirit give courage to the hearts of His people to pas on a robust and healthy Christian faith to future generations. The souls of precious and God-loved persons are at stake here.

15 comments:

John said...

Dear Barnabas,

This was a very informative and edifying piece. I myself am a covert to Orthodoxy from a basically secular atheist background (though I was in the RC church technically) and know next-to-nothing about Pentecostalism. It is quite easy to dismiss the movement as ignorant snake-charming nonsense or whatever, especially from intellectuals. But you paint an intriguing picture of of a genuine expression of the Holy Spirit as a counter to Western Christianity and Catholicism, which is strong in theological points but weak in the Holy Spirit. I find the 'weakness' of Orthodox ecclesiology, as discussed by Fr. Stephen in his blog (whence I disovered yours), to be a related topic, to say the least. The Orthodox Church does not rely on a strong hierarchy, and thus finds its strength in the work of the Holy Spirit in its individual members.

Thank you.

Barnabas Powell said...

Thanks John.

There is so much to learn from this precious Orthodox faith and so much healing available to us.

But Orthodoxy can be counter intuitive from a Western point of view because of how the faith was shaped by this Western mindset.

However, we cannot forget that the West was Orthodox at one point and we have to be careful not to repeat the same mistakes of the Reformers when they threw the baby out with the bathwater.

This careful, sober approach to the faith is wisdom and it is salvific.

May God grant us the patience and the humility to forever learn.

B

Caldonia Sun said...

"All one has to do is turn on religious TV to discover both old and new heresies ..."

Next you'll be telling us that the idea put forth by a televangelist(who shall go unnamed) that women originally were designed by God to give birth out of their side is wrong!

Seriously, a very good and thoughtful post. I have a pentecostal background, too and have recently converted to Orthodoxy. I agree with much of what you have written. I am thankful for my past experiences; they have brought me to the place I am today. And nothing is wasted in God's economy - He uses everything for our good, for our salvation.

Barnabas Powell said...

Thanks CS.

After my conversion to Orthodoxy, I had a few friends in Pentecostalism who stopped speaking to me, but they were the minority. I still have dear friends to this day who are Pentecostals.

I plan to write more about my thoughts on Pentecostalism and its potential to call the West back to a healthier theology, but I have no illusions that Pentecostalism will ever be spiritually healthy.

In any event, thanks for the note and may God bless.

B

s-p said...

Dear Barnabbas,
Thanks for the excellent post. We just began a series on the Holy Spirit on my radio program www.ourlifeinchrist.com and your comments are invaluable, I'd like to use some of them when we deal with the Pentecostal view of the Holy Spirit etc. If I ever get my phone interview setup it would be cool to interview you for the program.
peace to you and your house!

Barnabas Powell said...

SP,

Thanks for the note.

I am currently working on a series of articles about Pentecostalism and the opportunities it offers us and the dangers (there are many) it portends.

Check back now and again and give me the benefits of your thoughts.

B

David Bryan said...

I'm linking to this series on my blog. Excellent, excellent, excellent. This former "Bapticostal" is very impressed, sir.

Anonymous said...

How would you suggest to approach former Orthodox folks (Eastern European) fallen into this heresy of Pentecostalism?
I have some in my own family.

Barnabas Powell said...

I would first ask if they really understood their own Orthodox faith before they left.

If not, then that is where I'd begin.

Most people leave something because they perceive a lack in their own lives. Pentecostalism CAN appear to be the "exciting" and "new" move of God and it provides "instant gratification."

Find out what your relatives think they've gained in Pentecostalism, and then take some time to think about their answers and how you should respond.

Ask them also what they saw as lacking in their Orthodox faith previously.

The answers should provide you with some idea on how to respond.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much.
The problem with them is that as Orthodox they were ignorant of their religion, although accustomed to the externals of it. Now, when I try to point out some historical facts about Christianity, they say that "history doesn't save them" and stuff like that.
To me it's quite impossible to talk to them, for we have no common ground.
Sometimes they seem a bit more open to nationalistic arguments like "All of your ancestors were Orthodox", "Pentecostalism is a foreign religion for you, as Eastern europeans.", but I understand myself that these are not the best arguments and I don't quite like using them.

C.

ThinkingAhead said...

Here I read of Orthodox Christians concerned about those who have fallen to the "Pentecostal" heresy. I might suggest that there are people on both sides who are clear-headed and some who are misguided. For example one person writes of "the weakness of dependence on ecstatic experiences that even seem to feed a tendency toward sexual immorality, can all be found in abundance in Pentecostal movements."
Can this be documented? Probably not--it is just a likely a reckless opinion. Pentecostal leaders are more visible because of the popularity ad fast rise of the movement which also makes them easier to criticize. The same immorality seen among them is unseen among those of other traditions.

Barnabas Powell said...

Thinking Ahead,

While you may take issue with the comment you site, the main point of the comment is the claim by the Pentecostals that they are empowered by the Holy Spirit (with proof of their empowerment evidenced by the estatic expereinces) to lead a "Spirit-filled" life. The strong sub culture of sexual immorality that exists among the Pentecostals can, IMHO, tied to their dependence on feelings almost exclusively rather than on a balance of mystery and rationality.

B

ThinkingAhead said...

The Orthodox Church I admire. I appreciate the truths it bears. At the same time I think people who imagine they are scandal-free are in denial. Pentecostalism is the fastest growing expression of Christianity in the world and it's scandals are more visible because more people are interested. The Orthodox are in danger of becoming a relic and could learn a thing or two from the Pentecostals.

Barnabas Powell said...

Thinking Ahead,

The main thrust of this series of articles was not to show that Pentecostals have scandals, but that Pentecostal theology is not strong enough, well rooted enough, or free of heresy enough to bring a man or woman to full maturity in Christ.

The fact is that every expression of Christianity throughout history has been marked by scandal, so Pentecostals certainly do not have a corner on that at all. Nor would i suggest that Orthodoxy is free of scandal, far from it.

It is my opinion that Pentecostalism thrives because of the theological weakness inherent in Western theology. It is also my opinion that Pentecostalism can fornce the Church (as all heretical movements have done through the centuries) to rediscover and reclaim some elements of the message of Christ that they have let slip. It can also help the Church further clarify elements of Her message that can clearly show the heretical teachings of this movement.

So, we agree that Pentecostalism can do much for Orthodoxy, but Pentecostalism will have to eventually abandon its heresies if it is to ever be a place where souls can find the fullness of the faith. Simply admiring truths without coming to grips with the implications of those truths is forever inadequate.

B

ThinkingAhead said...

I'd like to know what your perception of those weaknesses and heresies are--seriously.
In my view Pentecostalism is in part a compensation for the flaws in Constantinian Christianity wherein confidence in temporal powers (and I am not overlooking the gains in the Western church) became endemic. Pentecostalism is less interested in developing prime ministers and presidents, or influencing their policies as it is in God's power of a future kingdom flowing into the present, transforming hopeless lives and healing sick persons both physically and emotionally.